Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Friday, March 20, 2009

Grammatical vs. natural gender

When my (American) wife learned German, I understood for the first time the difficulties posed for English speakers by the gender of German nouns, which, with very few exceptions, has nothing to do with "natural" gender. For example, a sausage (Wurst) is feminine, but an umbrella (Schirm) is masculine--how can this possibly make sense to someone for whom both are neuter? After all, there is nothing inherently "masculine" or "feminine" about either. This thread intends to explore this issue further.


retired_chemist said...

per Ulrich on RP's blog: "The real discussion I would like to have, but this is not the time or place, is the distinction between languages like English with natural gender and languages like German where the gender of nouns has nothing to do with natural gender."

I think the main issue is the simplification of the rules of grammar endemic to a Creole language such as English, which is a Creole of French and the Germanic languages. Each of the latter has complex such rules, much more so than English.

One can imagine a Saxon trying to speak with a Norman a thousand years ago. Sorting out noun gender complexities, as well as other linguistic differences, must have led to the linguistic simplifications we see in English. Here I include the natural use of gender.

I recall discussing a point similar to Ulrich's with a German friend (and chemistry colleague) and his wife. The wife said, "How complicated it must be for a non-German speaker to decide whether to use der, die, dem, or den." My friend said, "No, it is simple," but could not tell me why it was simple. Believe me, to an Anglophone such as I, it is not. I think Ulrich also believes the same.

Those interested should read the Cran and MacNeil book, "The Story of English," revised by McCrum. It describes the linguistic history of English. My thoughts are derived from theirs.


Ulrich said...

@retired_chemist: Your comment reminds me that when I read Chaucer, his language strikes me not as English, but as a mixture of French and German. But a few centuries later, that strange amalgam had gelled and achieved the smoothness shown in Hamlet. And the simplification that occurred through the centuries is the reason why English has become the lingua franca of the modern world--I view it altogether as positive.

Now to grammatical gender that differs from natural gender (I've made a similar point before in a different thread, where apparently it got lost b/c it was not germane to the discussion): From observing my wife's struggles, I cannot agree with the sanguine assessment of your friend: If gender is arbitrary, i.e. there are no logical rules (as Bodner claims in his The Loom of Language, my bible, language-wise), the only way to learn it is by rote, word-for-word, which is hard. The best strategy: Make it a point to always learn German words together with the def. article--not just Wurst, try to memorize die Wurst. The easiest strategy: full immersion in a German-speaking environment--that's what saved my wife in the end.

The Bodner book was an eye-opener to me b/c I confused natural and grammatical gender before I read him. Like Mark Twain, I pondered the seeming paradoxes of gender in German, e.g. why is it the only language I know where the sun is feminine and the moon masculine? I actually thought that a trace of the old Germanic matriarchy survived in this (woman as life-giver and so forth). But then I read Bodner who introduced me to the distinction between natural and grammatical gender and points out the arbitrariness of the latter in a language like German. Even more important for me was his claim that grammarians did themselves, and us, a great disservice by attaching labels like "masculine" or "feminine" to the gender classes they observed: This lead precisely to the confusion and bogus issues I (and Mark Twain) struggled with. I would go even further: It was unfortunate that grammarians used the term "gender" to denote the class-defining attribute in the first place.

I like the Wurst and Schirm examples b/c in the dialect I spoke during my elementary school years, which I spent in a small village on the Moselle river, Wurst is masculine and Schirm is neuter, whereas in High German, they are feminine and masculine, respectively: What better demonstration could there be for the essential arbitrariness of gender in German? Mind you, the dialect did not get it wrong b/c it existed before modern High German was created (essentially by declaring one dialect the official version of the language).

retired_chemist said...

I agree that my friend's sanguine assessment was overoptimistic. When I had my first and only semester of German in college, the requirement was to learn the article with the noun, as you say.

As I recall it is der flüss but specific rivers can have either feminine or neuter genders. This struck me as strange. True?

Ulrich said...

Again, I become aware of a peculiarity of German b/c someone who learns it points it out to me: this river thing had passed me by completely!

I can't think of any German river that's neuter and only two that are masculine: Rhein and Main (where Frankfurt is). All others are feminine.

It becomes even more interesting when we go to rivers in foreign countries--they also need a gender, of course, and this is what I find. All French rivers I can think of are feminine (Seine, Loire, Rhone etc). The Thames (Themse) is feminine, too, but the Avon probably masculine. Russia: The Don is masculine, Lena feminine. But the farther we go away from Germany, the more rivers become masculine. This seems to be the default option, probabaly b/c Fluss is masculine (Flüsse is the plural), and the Mississippi river then becomes masculine by association. Same with the Ganges, Indus, Nile etc.

retired_chemist said...

Ah, my bad. Keeping the umlauts straight, while easier than keeping the gender straight, is still somewhat taxing. Particularly through the haze created by the intervening 50 or so years since college. I think the haze also had me conflate Das Rheingold with the river and come up with the incorrect das Rhein.